Six Palestinian militants are on the run after tunneling their way through a small opening in their cells in a high-security prison in northern Israel, which has prompted a manhunt from the police and military.

In the early hours of Monday morning, six men escaped from the high-security Gilboa Prison, where scores of Palestinians who have been found guilty, or are suspected, of executing anti-Israeli attacks are serving sentences. The center is located around 4km (2 miles) from the occupied West Bank. 

Five of the six runaway prisoners belong to the Islamic Jihad movement, while the sixth – Zakaria Zubeidi – is a former commander of the Al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades armed military group. 

A passageway, only just large enough for a grown man to squeeze through, was found in the bathroom of the men’s cell and was connected to the prison’s drainage system. Another tunnel was discovered on a road on the south side of the facility, as shown by local media.

שלושה מהאסירים הביטחוניים הוגדרו בסיכון גבוה לבריחה • זו המנהרה דרכה נמלטו מכלא גלבוע | מבזק מיוחד בכאן 11@moyshis, אורלי אלקלעי

Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett expressed his condemnation at the jailbreak ahead of the Jewish new year, calling it a “grave incident” that required extensive surveillance. 

The escape has prompted a massive manhunt in the surrounding areas of northern Israel and the West Bank. Drones, helicopters and checkpoints have been deployed by Tel Aviv’s armed forces and police to locate the prisoners. Israeli officials expect that the escapees will attempt to make a run for Jordan or to Jenin, a Palestinian city in the northern West Bank. 

A spokesperson for Islamist militant group Hamas, Fawzi Barhoum, hailed the escape as a “victory.”

The Al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades carried out a string of deadly attacks against Israelis during the 2000-2005 Palestinian uprising. 

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